When we were planning our trip to France, we knew that we wanted to spend a week in Paris and a week “somewhere else”. We were looking for a place that had some historical interest, that would be pretty to look at, and that would most likely be hospitable during the last week of March.
Because of the last one, the mountains (Alps and Pyrenees) were out. And we thought the coasts of Normandy and Brittany might still be a little cold and wintery for a visit. Burgundy and Dijon seemed a little too close to Paris to really be “getting away” and Provence seemed perhaps a little too cliché-French. That left deciding between Alsace-Lorraine, the Loire, Southwestern France and the Rhone.
Ultimately, we decided to travel to the Perigord region in the Southwest. It’s an area of rolling hills shaped by the winding of the Dordogne River as it makes its way west to Bordeaux and the ocean. From our research, it sounded like the town of Sarlat la Caneda would be a great base of operations – a medieval bastide town rich in history, with a great market famous for foie gras, walnuts and truffles.
We rented a gas-sipping VW Golf diesel at the airport and armed with a Euro-enabled GPS, a photocopied “Paris Environs” map from Hertz, and a Michelin map of the Dordogne, we set off. Some of the traffic around Paris looked a lot like the traffic around Los Angeles and The Beloved did a great job getting us around and out of the Ile-de-France. After that, it was pretty smooth driving all the way down (about 6.5 hours) to the Perigord Noir.
It’s a funny thing. Several sources had warned us about the treacherous roads in the Dordogne* — but really they weren’t that bad. And after the first day, we actually put the GPS away. The map we had was good and the signs at intersections told you in which direction you needed to turn. We only got turned around once or twice (never for long) and that was it. The only thing that was tough was the smallest roads in the region which were theoretically 2-lane roads, were really more like 1.6-lane roads. This made every encounter with oncoming traffic more akin to un jeu de poulet than sightseeing.
Sarlat is a beautiful town with historic center in which most of the buildings date from the 14th century and had been made a National Historic Site by the French in the 1960s (it’s also a UNESCO site). From what we gathered, the set of buildings in which our apartment was located was built in 1350s. In Sarlat, anything built after 1750 is considered “modern”. It was a great town to walk around and when it was late and quiet, you could easily imagine yourself strolling in a different century.
To me though, the great surprise of the area was the CASTLES. There are awesome castles strewn throughout the Perigord – seemingly plunked down on every precipice and river bend.
What I’d not appreciated while reading about the Dordogne is that is was highly contested during The Hundred Years War and that many of the bastide (walled) towns built along the river were built by either the French OR the English during the war – sometimes fortifications were built right across the river from one another. The most impressive castle – Castle Beynac – had been held by Richard the Lionhearted (yes, THAT Richard the Lionhearted) for more than a decade. His banner and sword were still there. How awesome is that?
Because of the War, almost all the churches in the area that we toured had statues to Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc). Also, as you might expect, the churches were only of interest if they were built before say… before the New World was discovered. The oldest one we found was the Abbey at Cadhouin which was founded in 1115.
The Perigord was also rumored to have bad weather in early spring – but we caught a huge break in that the entire week was pretty much sunny with highs in the 70s. Just gorgeous all-around.
I’d say we made a good choice.
*If you get confused between my switching back between “Perigord” and “Dordogne”, you’re not the only one. It confused me all week as places in the same town referred to themselves differently, too.
40 thoughts on “Medieval Times”
Such fantastic photos! I became all goosebump covered when I saw the photo of the approach to La Roche Gageac. I wonder if I have been there in a previous life?
During my trip to France we went more to the southeast. It’s obvious that all of the south of France is some of the most beautiful country on the planet!
The Beloved and one of her friends talked about how they might have lived in a previous life — and they decided they would have probably been peasants and had it pretty bad… ;) It is such beautiful country.
If I recall my old French history lessons correctly, Périgord is the old name of the region prior to the French Revolution. Thereafter it was called the Dordogne by the Republic. Some places chose to retain the old name, partly because of tradition, and partly because of politics, however. I was told you know you’re talking to an arch-conservative if s/he keeps referring to the Dordogne as the Périgord. I traveled northwards, so I never had the opportunity to see the place. I am insanely jealous that you got to stand on the battlements of an ancient fortress wall!
HG — We looked up the official French regions and most of them are named for major rivers (maybe that was less touchy than taking one of the pre-existing regional names). The area we were in touted itself though as Perigord Noir — but I think mostly for culinary reasons — meaning come here for your foie gras and walnut liqueurs!
And we thought that Paris had a lot of history — and it does, but it’s been torn down and rebuilt A LOT — so this area was really amazing.
Absolutely breathtaking! Thank you for taking us along with you .. MJ
You got it emjay. Winding down, but still some more to come.
Such fun! I’m especially fond of the photo of the geese. And you.
I loved the square with the geese! We missed the big goose-market weekend — where the market price for geese and foie gras is set — by a week or two.
Tres bien. You should go!
As soon as the kid can stay with you, I’m on that flight!
It’s so hard to put into words “the place has character” isn’t it?
LG — the place was oooozing character. There’s still a pretty strong agri-economy there too, so it’s not ALL just for the tourists… ;)
Gosh, Steve, you make history *and* geography so interesting. I’ll follow your travels anywhere.
SS — I always thought history and geography WERE interesting… :) but I’m nerdy like that.
a game of chicken, wow, my french isn’t so rusty after all. Great pics!
Merci Budd — I was a lot more willing to drive the tiny roads early in the day when I was more awake.
There’s a lot of that in France and other Continental countries. For example, where I lived in Nantes, anybody and everybody called it Breton. But of course it’s on a map as Pays de la Loire. But, but…500 years ago it was the capitol of Bretangne, so it’s Breton to the people there — anyway. My friend on the other side of the country referred to her native city as Aachen unless she was speaking to a French person, then (bien sur) one called it Aix-la-Chappelle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Aix-la-Chapelle
Cos that was back in 812 :)
I spelled Chapelle wrong…as an ignorant American, it’s expected!
That’s okay, I spelled it incorrectly in my last post, too…
Exactly! It’s pretty funny. I guess if America had more than a thousand years of governmental turnover, we’d have a bunch of name places too!
Forgive me if I’ve already said this to you at some point … one reason I do not enjoy living in the south is the lack of history. Yes, there is history here in GA, but thanks to Sherman – there is little that was not built ‘recently’. I love heading up to New England, where I can find countless old buildings created by the first settlers. (Maybe not countless.)
When I traveled to London, I was thrilled entering the Tower of London – hearing about Sir Walter Raleigh, Anne Boleyn, etc.
I get chills just thinking about seeing a memento from ‘Lionhearted’ or Joan of Arc … amazing. Absolutely amazing. (And super dang cool!)
LD — we were comparing our trip to one we’d taken in 2008 to Berlin and how SO MUCH of Berlin was new because of the whole town being reduced to rubble at the end of World War II. It made us wonder what beautiful sorts of buildings and history had been lost because of it.
I grew up near Philadelphia, so everything I think of as “historical” pretty much starts around 1750…. :)
Wow, so incredible! Thank you for sharing!
EM — I wish the posts and pics could do the area better justice.
LOVE it, Steve. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been looking forward to your France posts!
Thanks, LC! I was happy to do the “research” for the posts! :D
Just today I was listening to history podcast that gave a nice brief overview of how the rulers of the Norman duchies basically bullied and humiliated the medieval French kings (Charlemagne’s descendents). Fascinating history, all of it. Too often, we assume that medieval kingdoms were all united under a single all-powerful sovereign, but that was very rarely the case. The French king was often one of the weaker nobles in France, and the English kings also struggled a lot with holding their own alleged realm together, especially early on. The so-called “Dark Ages” were actually an incredibly dynamic, vibrant time period.
But why am I saying this to a fellow history buff? Mostly I just want to say how I envy you your travels. I spent a few days in Paris, enough to get photos of some famous sites, buy my favorite hat (a simple black beret), and eat at the McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysees, but that hardly constituted getting a feel for the country. I’d love to travel the countryside, visiting castles and smaller towns; especially if I were married and had an awesome wife to travel with! (One day, I promise myself, one day…)
Thanks for sharing these pictures and stories of your travels.
David — it was interesting for me to see the disparity in the way that history was presented in Paris (king-centric) and contrast it to the way that it was around the Dordogne, where the baronies were clearly more independent (and with more vacillating loyalties) than you’d commonly think. These people take their regional history very seriously and it was fascinating to learn about the other (essentially losing) sides in drive to what we think of as modern France.
It’s funny — we probably saw and interacted with more “real” French people in Paris (as we were walking around) than in the south (where we were driving mostly from place to place). If I ever get the chance to go back, I’d love to rent a house out in the country or in one of the really dinky towns for a while.
Thanks for reading!
I think you should take all your trip pics and make a Youtube, complete with music and – if you can manage it – a Plateau de fromage, a crusty baguette, several bottled of Bourgogne Aligoté and glasses for all to celebrate your fantastic photos. And, your safe return.
That’s a good idea, trailblazer — I’ve been thinking about putting them together in a book. I’m a little chagrinned to say that I’ve never put one of those videos together, but The Beloved has, so I’m sure she would help me. :)
Hope to see your travelogue – a coffee table book, nice.
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Gorgeous pictures. I somehow missed this post the first time around and I’m glad I just came back to check and make sure I’d caught all your France posts. It blows my mind that some of those wonders are still around.
Erm, the wonders I’m referring to are “crazy old French castles,” not your France posts. Not that your France posts aren’t wonders in themselves, I’m just not surprised that they’re still around.
It’s early, don’t judge me.
I’m nothing if not a judger.
There’s always hidden gems on this blog! Like posts about George RR Martin… :) I couldn’t believe the sheer number of giant castles that were EVERYWHERE — every bend in the river, every promontory. Who built them all? I bet it was the 99%.
Coincidence…I was reading about Sarlat just the other day. It’s seems the classic example of how France combines the old and the new to make something even better than both. That’s what so fascinating about France (from what I’ve read.) There is no modern age…it’s all of an age and just seems to work. Can’t wait to visit.
I can’t wait to see and hear your impressions. I think that’s very true about France and its timelessness. Paris was very much like that — sometimes you’d wonder if it was just getting “caught up” in its own schtick, but then you realize this is actually the way it is.
There’s a book called 80 Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong…I think that’s the title. I only read a sample on Kindle and they talk a bit out the timelessness of France. I may download it…